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Friday, July 25, 2008

Fictionalizing their profiles

Adults need to take what they see in teen social-networking profiles with a grain of salt. Case in point:

Six UK newspapers ran a story about a teenager's "wild party" that her mother said never happened. It was a bit of fiction lifted from the girl's Bebo profile. First there was an invite sent out promising "the party of the year" for her 16th birthday, CNET reports. "Subsequent posts on Jodie Hudson's Bebo account spoke of underage drinking, sex acts, and violence that occurred at the celebration." The papers said 400 teens showed up and, encountering the ensuing "chaos," Jodie's mother "punched her in the face out of anger." Amanda Hudson wrote the newspapers that there was no underage drinking, no sex, no violence, and no stealing, despite what her daughter posted in Bebo. She's "suing for defamation and breach of privacy." In its coverage, The Independent cited legal experts as saying "the case may be a legal landmark because there is no precedent in disputes involving third parties who use or publish information from social-networking sites."

The case is also a perfectly timed illustration of a point London School of Economics Prof. Sonia Livingstone makes in her latest study, "Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: teenagers’ use of social-networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression" in New Media & Society (June 208).

"It should not be assumed that profiles are simply read as information about an individual," the social psychology professor suggests. Referring to one of her research subjects, Livingstone writes: "Jenny, like others, is well aware that people’s profiles can be 'just a front.' For several of the participants, it seemed that position in the peer network was more significant than the personal information provided, rendering the profile a place-marker more than a self portrait."

Some teens have several profiles on various social sites, some with the peer group more on display than the profile owner. All in all, though, the profiles of the social networkers in her study apparently were more about the individual in relation to his or her group of friends than about the group itself. That blend of individual and group is key and what seems to drive the information that appears in the profile (photos, invites, comments, favorite whatevers). So great care goes into what is made private (to friends only) and what is made public, and - Livingstone indicates later in her analysis - the sites' severely limited choices where privacy's concerned (public or private) is a problem for young people wanting to display more gradations. "Teenagers must and do disclose personal information in order to sustain intimacy [as in sharing innermost thoughts or passwords]," Livingstone writes, but they wish to be in control of how they manage this disclosure."

One final observation I found fascinating, in response to what many adults are thinking these days (and which I'm adding here because the article costs $15 to download): Livingstone writes that "although it indeed appears that, for many young people, social networking is 'all about me, me, me,' this need not imply narcissistic self-absorption. Rather, following Mead’s (1934) fundamental distinction between the 'I' and the 'me' as twin aspects of the self, social networking is about 'me' in the sense that it reveals the self embedded in the peer group, as known to and represented by others, rather than the private 'I' known best by oneself."

My takeaway
: There's no reason to overreact to a superficial surf through a bunch of social-networking profiles - even those of our own kids' peers. In many ways their profile fabrications are good. They're...

  • Protective - only real-life friends, not creeps, know what is and isn't true, which means strangers who try to contact them have zero credibility and usually get ignored.
  • A safe way to explore identity and social relating, which is part of adolescent development
  • A creative outlet with instant audience (mostly their friends and creative collaborators), something aspiring writers of the past could only dream about - see the last sentence of this item on the California-based Digital Youth research project.

    Readers: Dr. Livingstone told me she'll send a pdf copy of her article to anyone interested. If you are, drop me an email at, and I'll pass your request along to her.

    Related links

  • Skewing a little younger: Note how 10-year-old Clementine creates and plays with fictional identities in various sites and worlds online, as told by her mother, New York Times columnist Michelle Slatalla in "Today, I think I'll be Hippohead" ("as of last month, more than 100 new virtual worlds had started up or were in development," Michelle reports).
  • The social sites teens use: In the UK, "Facebook dominates UK social networking with 45.29% of the market, almost double the share of second-placed Bebo and three times more than MySpace, as micro blogging site Twitter shows major growth," UK-based reports.
  • "Just because they crave attention?"
  • Some US police don't take SN profiles at face value - see this on how some "gang members" in MySpace are just wannabes acting out.

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  • Briton wins social-site libel case

    This is a social-networking legal first. A British high court awarded a man named Mathew Firsht 22,000 pounds (nearly $44,000) in damages from a fake profile and group about him on Facebook, according to a report in MSNBC. The group, called “Has Mathew Firsht lied to you?”, and imposter profile reportedly were created by a former school friend. The profile contained "false claims about [Firsht's] sexuality, religion and political views, the Financial Times reports. According to MSNBC, "the information stayed on the site for 16 days until Firsht's brother spotted it. Firsht alerted Facebook staff who deleted the pages and told his lawyers they had been posted on the site from a computer at Raphael's home."

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    Thursday, July 24, 2008

    MySpace ever more mobile

    Trying to block MySpace at school (or home or anywhere) is getting harder, since...

    1. "For teens, the future is mobile," CNET reports, and
    2. MySpace (not to mention other social sites) is getting increasingly mobile.

    MySpace just announced its new social-networking app for the iPhone (available free in iPhone's App Store), Internet News reports. With it, iPhone users can "search the network and add friends, compose and delete mail, and send bulletin blasts to all their friends [in 12 languages so far]. It will also offer the ability to upload and share pictures" and music. MySpace is also available on Helio phones, the T-Mobile Sidekick and other AT&T phones - not to mention its deals so far with 27 carriers in 20 countries offering (MySpace tailored just for those little mobile screens). MediaPost says games and social networking "lead the way" in the App Store, now with 500 applications in it. And social networking on phones is only just taking off - calls mobile social networking a "goldmine of untapped business opportunities." So, for youth, filtering workarounds are getting easier by the moment. As my tech educator friend Anne Bubnic wrote, this is "another good reason we need to focus on digital citizenship rather than block sites - kind of like trying to block out fresh air when it’s all around you, anyway." Parents might consider setting parental controls on kids' iPhones themselves, though, since 6 out of 10 of the most popular apps named by a site that rates iPhone apps (which was pointed out by a reader and to which NetFamilyNews can't ethically link) are selling porn. For a mobile social-networking reality check, a study in the UK, where youth mobile phone use is even higher than in the US, found that "only 24% of Internet users access social-networking sites with a mobile phone," reports.

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    Texting for parent avoidance?

    That's according to an executive in Disney's US mobile-phone division: that kids will let parents' calls go to voicemail, then text Mom or Dad about what's up, CNET reports. They prefer texting to talking with parents (and friends) "so that they can continue doing other things like play video games with friends." Check out the texting numbers CNET's Stefanie Olsen reports, citing C&R Research in Chicago: "The average teen generates between 50 and 70 text messages a day, or as many as 18,000 a year." Nearly 50% of US 10-to-13-year-olds and 83% of teens own cellphones.

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    New project or era for social Web?

    The Telegraph calls it a kind of "passport" for Web socializers. Facebook calls it "Facebook Connect." With it, other sites (e.g., Twitter, SixApart, and 22 others so far, The Telegraph says) can use people's Facebook screenname and password instead of storing separate ID info for those users. They can also offer users "the ability to import their list of friends from Facebook," the New York Times reports. Facebook Connect, which won't completely launch until the fall, isn't the only such "passport" system in the works, though. The Telegraph says its competitors are MySpace's Data Availability project and Google's OpenSocial project (Bebo's thrown in with the latter project). Facebook founder/CEO Mark Zuckerberg was speaking about this, some other new features, and his view of a more decentralized social Web in future at a social-networking developers conference in San Francisco this week. He spoke, the Times reports, of social networking being "at the beginning of a movement and the beginning of an industry.” Interestingly, Zuckerberg mentioned that more than two-thirds of Facebook users are outside the US, according to The Telegraph. See also "Facebook to clean up its apps," by my co-director Larry Magid.

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    Wednesday, July 23, 2008

    'Friending' against school policy

    It's against school policy in Mississippi's Lamar County Public School District for teachers and students to text each other or to be "friends" in social-networking sites. "Both texting and social networking have too many gray areas that could lead to misunderstanding and downright trouble," the Hattiesburg American reports. The policy's being considered in other Mississippi school districts as well. This reminds me of a case of teacher-to-student sexual exploitation involving texting in the news this past year (sorry I can't find the link at the moment). I'd like to hear your thoughts on the validity of this school policy - in comments here or, ideally, in the forum.

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    Another COPA ruling

    The federal appeals court in Philadelphia again ruled that the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 is unconstitutional. The decision is "the latest twist in a decade-long legal battle [that] ... has already reached the Supreme Court and could be headed back there," the Associated Press reports. COPA, which was blocked by the Philadelphia court shortly after it was signed, followed the Communications Decency Act, which was also intended to regulate adult Web content. CDA was ruled unconstitutional in "the landmark case Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union," AP added.

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    Tuesday, July 22, 2008

    New York's new videogame law

    Gov. David Paterson today signed a law that establishes an advisory panel to study the effects of videogame violence on kids and establishes $100 civil penalties for "violations of labeling and parental control provisions," Newsday reports. Most videogame consoles already have parental controls, however (see this about a guide for them), and game ratings are available to all at Critics are calling it "moral preening" after similar laws have been struck down as unconstitutional in other states. "Language making a felony of selling video games that are sexually explicit or contain depraved violence was lost during furious lobbying that derailed [New York's] bill in May 2007. That provision would have made the law among the strictest in the nation," Newsday adds. Let's now see if this version of the law passes constitutional muster.

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    NSFW 'rating' useful to parents

    It stands for "not suitable for work" and, in effect, it's a Web content rating. "NSFW" is "used to indicate that the content of the message or Web page is not appropriate because it is off-color at best or sexually explicit at worst," according to the GetNetWise blog. Like IMHO ("in my humble opinion") or even POS ("parent over shoulder"), it's one of those grassroots Internet terms that just takes off, usually because it's supremely useful to a lot of people. That would include parents, who probably wouldn't want to see it in the Subject field of an email message a child could view or among the search terms among those used for "homework." GetNetWise points out that sometimes it's in the invisible code behind a Web page. The Firefox browser "has a plug-in which allows you to avoid links tagged as being NSFW." Parents might consider downloading that plug-in (or "add-on," as Firefox calls it) and restricting at least younger kids' browser use to Firefox.

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    Social Web & business

    I'm including this in a family-tech blog because kids just could some day be businesspeople! Aspects of social networking are really making inroads into the business world. One bit of evidence this week is the finding that "more than 50% of German companies use the means of communication provided by web 2.0, i.e. blogs, wikis and social networking." That's from, citing a study by BITKOM and Oracle. Wikis (the collaborative online encyclopedia Wikipedia being an example) in particular are used to help match people with creative solutions to "particular tasks and problems." Other benefits cited: increased productivity, more cooperation between departments and company locations, transparency, increased productivity, and accessible documentation of work processes. Meanwhile, two US-based businesses, the New York Times and the professional social site LinkedIn, just struck a deal that allows the Times "to draw on all the personal profile data that users have entered on LinkedIn, such as the profession or industry they work in, as well as their job title, age, sex and location, the better to target advertising at," the Financial Times reports. And Visa and Facebook have teamed up to bring "almost half a million small-business owners" to Facebook in an area of the service called The Visa Business Network, reports.

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    Monday, July 21, 2008

    The text version of hanging out

    There is a place for micro-blogging (such as with Twitter), and not just for hyper-communicative youth or parents on business trips who use it to keep in constant, drive-by touch with their kids. Fascinatingly,
    Clive Thompson at Wired calls it "social proprioception" - the social version of the hand knowing what the foot's doing. He writes that Twitter "gives a group of people a sense of itself.... It's almost like ESP.... You know who's overloaded ... and who's on a roll.... Twitter substitutes for the glances and conversations we had before we became a nation of satellite employees." This is in contrast to past claims that the Net isolates us from one another, and it's where the social Web is heading, Clive suggests. He also offers a good reason for why it's widely misunderstood: It's "experiential" - you can't just view it to understand, you have to do it with a group of friends or colleagues, people with shared lives or interests. Dipping into it from the outside is like walking in on the hanging-out banter of a group of close teenaged friends - you not only need to know a bit about what they're talking about, you need to know them to understand what's going on.

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    'Computer camp' nowadays

    It has changed over the years. Now there's CampGame, where Arizona high school students spend six weeks learning videogame design at Arizona State University's school of engineering. Besides design, they also learn "the fundamentals of the game industry" and how to "develop concepts and prototypes for new games," East Valley Living reports. "CampGame is a part of the engineering school’s support of a national education effort to interest young students in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics." Then there’s ID Tech Camp at Stanford University, where kids and teens learn just about anything their little hearts desire, from programming, 3D character modeling for special effects, digital video production, game mods, robotics, as well as videogame design, CNET reports. See also the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on under-privileged kids performing major computer surgery.

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